Three Jehovah's Witnesses Detained In Russia's Kamchatka

PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATKSY, Russia -- Three members of the local branch of a Jehovah's Witnesses church have been detained in Russia's Far Eastern Kamchatka peninsula on extremism charges.

An official with the regional Investigative Committee, Yelena Matafonova told RFE/RL on August 21 that a married couple and an elderly woman from the town of Yelizovo were detained and placed in a pretrial detention on suspicion of "committing a crime linked to extremism," by participating in the activities of "a banned religious organization."

If found guilty, the trio faces up to 10 years in prison, Matafonova, said, adding that it was the first group of the Jehovah's Witnesses arrested in Russia's Far East peninsula.

Long viewed with suspicion in Russia for their positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general, the Jehovah’s Witnesses -- which claim some 170,000 adherents in Russia and 8 million worldwide -- are among several denominations that have come under increasing pressure in recent years.

Russia’s Supreme Court in July 2017 upheld a ruling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be considered an extremist organization, effectively banning the denomination from the country.

The original ruling, issued in April 2017, was the first time an entire registered religious organization had been prohibited under Russian law.

Earlier this month, the Moscow-based Memorial human rights center said that since the Supreme Court's ruling, at least 29 members of the religious community have been detained on criminal charges in Russia, of whom 23 are in detention while others are under house arrest.

According to Memorial, the Supreme Court's ruling does not cite any instance of the violation of any laws or regulations by the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In June, advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin have questioned the legality of criminal cases opened against the Jehovah's Witnesses, asking the Prosecutor-General's office to protect the group's freedom of belief.

Also in June, the United States called on the Russian authorities to release dozens of people it says have been identified by rights groups as political prisoners, including members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who it said had been in pretrial detention for more than a year.

On June 19, some 60 Russian writers, historians, and activists signed an appeal calling on authorities to stop prosecuting the group.